Classical Music Thread -

Positron

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Conductor André Previn died. I don't have a special feeling for or against him, but it seems a few celebrities were friends with him:
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Apart from his famous conducting work, Previn was also a pianist (jazz and classical) and an esteemed (albeit hugely conservative) composer. His most famous composition is perhaps the operatic adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire, with music that might be too opulent for its subject matter.


The orchestral song cycle Honey and Rue seems to have been cut from the same cloth:
 
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Positron

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Another day, another dead conductor-composer.

Michael Gielen, who left us on 8 March at the age of 91, was best known as a chief exponent of modern music, although he also left us a Mahler cycle that divides opinions. To me his best recording is his Luigi Nono CD. In the piece "No hay camino, hay que caminar...Andrei Tarkovski", Gielen shows how attuned he is to the shadowy, stifled soundworld of late Nono. Each tiny rise in dynamics is registered as a heart-rending cry:

 

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It shouldn't work, but it does: the combination of organ and guitar. Organist Peter Hurford is attracted by the chime-like quality of the sound of guitar, and he chose the appropriate registration on the organ to best compliment it.

 
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So here's something different. Beth Gibbons (of Portishead fame), and one of my favourite vocalists, has apparently collaborated with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, to perform Henryk Gorecki's third symphony:

Admittedly, I knew nothing about the composer, but the arrangements are absolutely beautiful and dramatic. I'm definitely gonna check out more of his work. Also, I've always considered Beth Gibbon's voice to be quite fragile, which complemented the instrumentation in Portishead perfectly. So I was pleasantly surprised by how bombastic her voice it at times during this performance, while still retaining the more tender characteristic. A really good listen overall.
 
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Positron

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Gibbon's surprising good at this: her tone is beautiful and affecting. They had to transpose the vocal part downwards for her but the music is none the worse for it. Although compared with a trained soprano, her pianissimos are not secure. Penderecki's conducting is in want of transparency, especially during the last moment
 
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Oscar Wildean

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This is my favorite version of Jesu, Joy Of Man's Desiring.


Because of the Irish sounding part that comes in.
 

Oscar Wildean

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This Danny Elfman piece felt like an instrumental to dance to.

Merry Widow Waltz is one of my go-to songs when I picture a romantic waltz scene. It has such a relaxing and alluring sound.
 
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Strine

It had become a glimmering gorl,
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Not Ravel's masterpiece - that would be Daphnis and Chloe - but a gorgeous suite, masterfully interpreted in this recording. Ravel wrote these movements based on traditional dances of the Baroque, and the suite is dedicated to Couperin, one of the great French masters of the Baroque - hence its cheeky name, "Couperin's Tomb". The suite is quite famous, and makes wonderful use of the woodwind section, with particular love bestowed on the oboe.

The Prelude is a sunny morning, probably in Paris judging by the busy, competing figures running through the music like shoals salmon swimming up a stream, or streams of people bustling through a street. It becomes more pensive around figure 5, the cheeky woodwind lines still bouncing around but with a distinctly bluer mood - like we have stepped into the shade. Ravel's climaxes are famously abrupt, brief, and intense: at figure 9, the violas start to build, and the music rapidly becomes emotional, with a dazzling climax at figure 10 - yet still delicate, reserved and very French; Ravel is conceding his emotion rather than asserting it!

The Forlane, notoriously dissonant, is next. We begin with angular figures in the strings, and spiky harmonies in the woodwinds, and the jocular, slightly murky theme is bandied around between strings and woodwinds, its capricious nature difficult to get a grasp on. This section turns out to be a mere introduction, and moving into figure 3 with a fabulously dark cor Anglais line, Ravel stops teasing and reveals what this movement is really about.
An exquisite secondary theme, coy, tender, and dreamy, is stated at 3; the woodwinds hocket this still-severely-dissonant, but somehow impossibly sweet little dance figure to each other. The flutes begin, then the clarinets, the oboes, and finally cor Anglais has the last say, followed by a warm affirmation in the cor A. and strings. This short, utterly beautiful secondary theme is very dissonant throughout, but Ravel's magnificent orchestration and harmony construction make it sounds sweet instead of sour - this is what Impressionism, at its best, was about. A brief tertiary theme is stated, then the secondary, and then we return to the first - Ravel driving in reverse here - before hearing the rather sombre next section. The rest of the Forlane toys with themes and progresses through different moods, with a notably jarring one at fig. 16. Oboe once again is in the spotlight playing a silly, spiky theme, but is told off by the strings and tows the line as the movement winds down with sweet little interjections from different instruments.

The Menuet is the most explicitly emotive of the movements. The oboe, of course, leads off with a warm and tender theme, supported by the other double reeds. It continues, with the strings under it, and progresses through a very beautiful vocalistic passage, Ravel richly painting a vista of vivid colour and warm sunlight. A particularly tender moment sees the entire orchestra tapering off as the oboe, with the utmost delicacy, ascends an arpeggio, with only the 2nd bassoon in unison:
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Shadows follow at 4, with the oboe silent and the other woodwinds playing a cool, wistful theme - think of the blue shadows in Monet paintings. It's repeated by the brass and clarinets with an astonishingly faithful retention of mood, despite dramatic changes in instrumentation. The strings take over, and the theme grows eerier and more menacing, but fades away and we once again hear the blueness of the wistful theme. But then, a heartbreakingly sweet oboe entry forces a change of key and mood, the oboe playing its beautiful song much higher now, to combat the darkness - if laboured tenderness exists, this is it. A very dramatic key change (G to B) as the strings take up the oboe theme, playing it with more passion but burdened by the darkness in the middle strings; the theme is now an emotional mixture of major AND minor, the woodwinds rejoining as the unsure theme is comforted by the little rising figure in the oboe and bassoon we heard before - now a major third higher - and the theme is then taken up by the flute, against dissonance; the oboe takes it again, with seemingly more warmth, but is interrupted by the cor Anglais, who, possessed by passion, sings a gorgeous version of the theme as tense chords condense and crescendo like a sudden storm. We get two bars - only two - of buildup, and then a resplendent Cmaj7 chord; a sweet sob of joy, crowns the menuet at figure 14; the (concert pitch) E in the clarinet forming a breathtaking bitonal effect against the high B in the strings and fl/ob. It almost immediately becomes a sad, sighing minor chord - Ravel climaxes, as stated, are brief and intense, and the movement floats away into a sunset sky, ending on an emotionally ambivalent Gmaj7 chord.

Rigaudon - a sprightly couples dance, and the jocular bouncing around of fragmentary themes like little breezes call to mind a windy summer day. After a strong exposition, we get a demure oboe solo, occasionally assisted by a masculine cor Anglais - a lady dancing with her gentleman. This eventually moves into a moment of summery, bittersweet horizon-staring - but then the jocular theme returns; come back and dance! And so we do, and the suite ends with a lovely flourish.
 

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Shostakovich's Aphorisms, Op. 13 is an early work, written when he was 20, but the 10 pieces encapsulate his whole musical personality -- the sardonic, the wistful, the driven, the preoccupation with death -- in about 13 minutes. What they don't represent is his Jewabooism, because that came later.



The seventh piece, "Dance of Death", was obviously based on the plainchant Dies Irae. I remember, many years before, I tried to submit a list of compositions that quote Dies Irae to Wikipedia. They rejected me because I couldn't provide citations. How could I? Some of the pieces, like B.A. Zimmerman's Music to "The Feast of King Ubu", I only heard on the radio. For others, like Dallapiccola's Songs of Imprisonment, the quotation was not explicitly acknowledged in the sleeve notes. Never mind; it's Wikipedia's loss.
 
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Positron

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Josef Suk's Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra still languishes at the fringe of the standard repertory, which is a pity: this work is as big a romantic statement as can be, and gives the soloist every opportunity for virtuosic display. Maybe it is its awkward length: at a little more than 20 minutes, it won't fill the first half of a concert like the longer concertos by Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky do.

 

Positron

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I have no idea why Kaija Saariaho gave her harp concerto the title Trans; she is not very forthcoming. It can't be about trannies though: although Saariaho is not overtly a feminist, many of her works concerns the female experience. The chamber piece Je Sens une Deuxième Coeur is about pregnancy, and the opera Adriana Mater is about motherhood.

My first impression of the harp concerto Trans is that it is appropriately virtuosity, the slinky sonority of the harp sometimes reminds me of the West African kora rather than the regular concert harp. Saariaho uses the small orchestra as an echoing chamber of the soloist -- an approach that is very much in vogue during the last 20 years.


There hasn't been too many concerto written for the harp, and concert goers are sick of hearing the same Mozart and Rodrigo. I hope this work will catch on, just like Ginastera's passionate and flamboyant concerto recently has.
 

Strine

It had become a glimmering gorl,
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Yes, 20th Century French music again.

This Stabat Mater may be Poulenc's masterpiece, although in many ways it is not his style at all. Poulenc had two distinct characters in his music; a light, ironic, Neoclassical style, and a reverent Catholic gender which employed his creative and extensive skills of harmony to create resonant and lucent music. This Stabat Mater was written in dedication to a recently deceased friend, and it combines both characters and yet also contains curious features Poulenc is not known for - heavy, Orff-esque orchestration, Baroque and Rococo elements, and a thick darkness which is almost unknown to French music outside of Berlioz. Here's a bit of a highlights reel:

We open on a ponderous A minor arpeggio theme, with dense woodwind textures; this is a dark, archaic sound highly reminiscent of the dramatic openings seen in Bach's Passions, and the Mozart Requiem. The high woodwinds gently intone a funereal melody, which the oboes fill with sour dissonance, and then the basses enter with the same melody, now octaves lower, passionate and dark. Music this edgy and intense is not at all characteristic of France!

5:09 sees seemingly more conventional Poulenc; an unaccompanied chorale with dissonant harmonies. This mournful, uneasy progression leads to a very emotional moment; the basses exclaiming "Mater!" on a minor third - the dying Christ calling for his weeping mother. This leads further, in the "fuit illa benedicta" to the shimmering harmonies and timbres Poulenc is known for.

The next movement, at 7:59, is a bit of Poulenc irony: a very major and bright section for the part of the text detailing the Virgin watching Christ suffering on the cross. This was cheeky, and probably purely to alleviate the doom and gloom in this part of the mass.

More darkness, and soon we return to (loosely) B minor in the Vidit Suum, but the key and modality is very amorphous as the bittersweet themes of motherhood and death are blended: the solo soprano, representing Mary herself, leads us through passages of both major and minor as she reflects on it all. We hear a very important motif at 13:06 in the male voices: "dum emissit spiritum", when Christ sent forth his spirit, followed by a sinister chromatic orchestral section. The Virgin then despondently sings "dum emissit", but this time, its melody is the four notes we heard at the very beginning, the "stabat mater" motif. The movement ends firmly in B minor, and Poulenc directs a long silence after the final cadence.

The second section of the mass is a direct prayer to the Virgin, and so the tone changes to one of exaltation, but with an almost silly ending to the Eja Mater at 15:29. We get seemingly another a capella section in the Fac ut ardeat, but at 16:23 the low strings interrupt with a gorgeous bitonal answer to the choir. The key remains minor, but with a powerful major turn on "Christum Deum", and then winds down as it began, but with a final chord in the orchestra straight out of Carmina Burana!

The next sequence, the Sancta Mater, is magnificent. The basses begin with a beseechment to the Virgin, in a major-key theme very reminiscent of their opening theme - stabat mater ("standing mother") has been inverted to sancta mater ("holy mother"). The choir answer with breathtaking chords, and then the orchestra kicks off in a modal theme as the choir call to each other with cautious, but joyfully optimistic prose. At 19:37, "juxta crucem" ("facing the cross") is reprised - this was in the first movement too - in a fearsome manner, but the music smilingly quietens, and leads into an ecstatic, tender and passionate "virgo virginum", with lush orchestral support for the quiet and flowing choral part. This beauty continues unalloyed for a brief time, but the music is soon dragged back into darkness as the text turns once again to the Virgin's grief.

After some more theatre, we arrive at Quando Corpus (26:57). This is the final verse of the Stabat Mater, and the choir opens seemingly in a trance. Suddenly, we see why: the heavens are thrown open above us, and the divine fire of Paradise floods the music - the choir become exultant in their trance, as if directly beseeching the divine, and then fire once again as the solo soprano sings Mary's own praise to God. The music becomes gentler, and the Virgin continues to sing. We hear the opening orchestral theme again, the music becoming more and more tense, and then, at last, at 29:43 the choirs of angels themselves sing their lamentation for the Stabat Mater's dead son, with the melody of the "dum emissit spiritum" from before - as Christ's soul departs the world. We hear the Virgin a final time, a wistful reprisal of her own "Stabat Mater" motif, after she has indeed stood through it all, and a thunderous "amen" as the Son of Man redeems humanity in his death.
 
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Positron

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Been getting into Charles Koechlin lately. Koechlin is a somewhat peripheral figure in early 20th century French Impressionism, most famous for orchestrating the works of his fellow composers and friends like Debussy and Faure. The three Études antiques, Op. 46, are also orchestrations, but of his own earlier vocal works with piano. Listening to it, especially the third movement "Épitaphe d'une jeune femme" ("A young woman's epitaph") I am struck by its close kinship with Debussy. It sounds almost like "Les parfums de la nuit" from Iberia: the stuffy, windless, lightly perfumed night.

 
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